CTI Podcast - Episode 36: Teaching, Learning, and Critical Thinking Through STEM with Dylan Kirklin


Tony Pellegrini: Good morning friends Tony Pellegrini here with our Teaching and Learning podcast at SUU in March are not the end of the month but we've got to get it to happen. Our guest this month is Dylan Kirklin from our STEM Center, the director of our STEM Center here at SUU. And we'd like to give Dylan a moment or two tell us a little about your background. What tempted you here to come to SUU and some of the cool things that are happening in STEM right now? 

Dylan Kirklin: Thanks, Tony. Actually, part of my history is you! You may or may not remember this I was doing my undergrad here at SUU in elementary education. And we went up to the SUU cabin, and you brought your pizza maker. And I remember that was the first time I actually met you and inspired me to do my master's of education here as well, which I did do all through with that and continued to teach. I taught at Iron County for five years. I started in kindergarten. Then I moved on to fourth grade, which I taught for three years and then a position came open at Cedar middle school and I taught sixth grade science, which I loved. I thought I would be there for a little while. And job opening opened up here as the director of the STEM Center here at SUU and I was very interested and I just got the job I guess so it's yeah, it's been a lot of fun. I enjoy teaching and learning so this podcast for me is a cool thing will be fun. 

Tony Pellegrini: It is a lot of fun. It is a lot of fun. Have you ever had an opportunity to serve at the cabin during the summer with [Unintelligible] the other STEM students that participate and engage up there? 

Dylan Kirklin: Yes, absolutely. Cedar mountain science camp. I always put a plug in for Cedar mountain science camp. I love it. It's a great opportunity for students as fourth through sixth graders to go out there and experience science. All of STEM really do lots of engineering for two days in the night which was really fun to spend with those kids and to teach them and see a great opportunity for them to learn in a very fun environment. So yeah, that's a lot of fun. 

Tony Pellegrini: I'm glad you’re using the F word and educational fun as is a wonderful, wonderful word to keep things moving forward. What I'd like to start with today is to invite you to discuss some of the discipline standards in your content with STEM. What are some that you connect with as a director and as a teacher here at SUU? 

Dylan Kirklin: That's a great question. You know, one of the things that I'm focused on most this year, especially in teaching and learning is collaboration. So many great people know so many great things and unless you talk about it or work together, that doesn't happen. So our focus really over the STEM center is collaborating, working with others this year and talking with teachers frequently and often both on here on campus educators, professors, we have here as well as off campus districts across southern Utah. So that collaboration is an important key to us and continuing to advance the STEM center. There are many there's a few different STEM centers here in Utah, and I don't want to brag but ours is pretty good. We have really good professors that are willing to help and we have community members that are willing to help and educators across southern Utah that are willing to pitch in and do things for free and to volunteer their time. And it makes us special. We're a special program here so I'm glad to be part of that. 

Tony Pellegrini: So I think that is wonderful. But collaboration that you've connected with him that you're making with your peers and with others here in Cedar and beyond. What are some qualities or attributes or content maybe that you're looking for that we could invite our listeners if they have some of those skills to reach out to you and to connect and collaborate with you? 

Dylan Kirklin: Absolutely. Many professionals here at SUU are willing to jump in like I talked about. And some of the things that we've been looking for is working together with those in secondary education. STEM and elementary education has been around for a few years. There's lots of activities for elementary aged kids. And of course that's where they're beginning to love it. And that's where the love is lost as well. We've noticed a lot of students fade out of STEM jobs at an early age because they think they don't fit in. Maybe that's not their place, or maybe because of their gender or their other identities they feel ostracized or different from those that they normally see in those jobs. And as we continue to work on elementary education, we're also working on strengthening secondary education. We have many professors here that are willing to help out in middle schools and high schools. And we're continuing to look at collaborations like that. I hate to mention names here because I know there's so many people that I could mention just a few examples. Cameron Pace, does a great job at working with high school students. And he does a fantastic job of getting them research and working on that research and investigating and asking questions and publishing papers and things like that are super special and super unique to Southern Utah University. That's a rare thing to have professors here. Not only do their job well, but then go out to other places and do it for free. Well, and that's unique.

Tony Pellegrini: Thank you so very much and I do really appreciate that you hit one of those four C's that I really love collaboration can I talk about a couple of others? Or have you addressed some of the others. Another one is critical thinking. How do you encourage those that you work with whether they're teachers or students to work on and address and put into practice their critical thinking skills within the context that you engage them? 

Dylan Kirklin: Critical thinking is so important in all jobs, and that's definitely something that is one of those skills that goes beyond anything else, you know, like critical thinking in the classroom, teaching students to critically think being a great teacher and being able to share that in that process and facilitate that for students is so important as well. We've noticed great teachers are also great learners, right? And they and they've learned how to do this thing. They learned how to facilitate these environments where students feel comfortable both K 12 level as and here at SUU and as they help create circumstances as they create situations for students to learn and to process and critically think they're creating these lifelong skills that are once again to me unique to SUU. For example, in the education program, as I was studying and going through practicums and working with local K 12 teachers and those up north, we had a ton of in person experience and you had to think on your feet and you had to critically think and that's not just here in education programs, but across SUU, where there are situations where professors allow students to have that free range in fact one of the things that I made a note, I was listening to your podcast with Josh Price and Jeff Bryan and and they talked about letting students solve their own problems even though we often we have the answer, and it's very clear to us but allowing them to work through that process and to work through that critical thinking is it's it's key.

Tony Pellegrini: And that built really I love that you brought that up. I think that that really demonstrates that resiliency, that growth, you know, our schools, I think you'd agree with me schools K 12. Schools are a lot different today than they were even five years ago and that those changes are can be difficult for classroom teachers to make such students and parents to address as well too. But by learning to solve our own problems to do the best that we can get that we can, you know, as I work with students, even if it's making pizza up the mountain, I expect only the best I mean you know, they can't I don't expect anything more than what the best that students can do. I wanted to just put another C word in front of you creativity, does creativity have anything to do or support or engage with or connect with stem and the sciences?

Dylan Kirklin: Absolutely. You know, I think you already know the answers. Give me the softballs. Right? So creativity is the creativity in the creative process is so key in all things STEM and across all really all things that we do but creativity is a huge part of allowing us to innovate. And without that creativity, innovation is stagnant and that's a problem. We already have great ways to do a lot of things but it's developing those new ways to teach to learn. That increases our potential to be better teachers and learners, especially here in SUU working together with many people again, I feel bad saying names but Elisa Peterson in education department is a great example of this. How creative she is in her ability, ability to innovate and to work with others into by others to try new things and to offer new things and just looking at any of the work that she's done here at SUU is a great example of how creativity leads to innovation and leads to better learning. 

Tony Pellegrini: Very appreciative of that skill or that approach that you share with your learners with those that you work with to be able to use their creativity to yes solve their own problems, but maybe in a way that's different than you or I might solve those problems. So critical and you're right. I agree wholeheartedly. Elise is a great example of- and I touched on that again. So let's just jump right in. So please, please. 

Dylan Kirklin: We just purchased a rocket simulator from the Clark planetarium. And we brought it to one of our STEM nights. And it's a really cool, really cool thing and there's a few things I've been worried about that when you bring anything like a rocket simulator something that appears to be a video game. It attracts a certain type of student and a certain type of student often wants to take over in that process. So as I have groups of students approach of all ages, genders, they come together and one of the things I instruct them is if they've seen a rocket launch lately, they're usually one person on that rocket and multiple people on that rocket why? Why don't we put so many of these people together? And often they come up with the solution to that is, you know, they have different ideas. They have different thoughts. They have different problem solving. And they work together on that. So that's just example. One way we're trying to get students to work together is to put them on teams and they use that rocket simulator often useful enough to six or seven people in a group and it looks like an arcade cabinet, you know, as the toggles and switches and it's a fun, it's a fun little thing, but it's even at a young age encouraging students to collaborate, to innovate, to work together to find solutions of why the rocket blow over. How come it just didn't work it was too heavy. What's going on here and facilitating those processes like I talked about before is it's important to me to allow the students to do that.

Tony Pellegrini: Well I think too you brought up the last C communication of how critical it is for your learners with this with those that we're working with this rocket to model their rocket simulation. They have to communicate one with another they have to be able to not just push the bells and the whistles on it, but they have to be able to to communicate and make their their knowledge their understanding known and it's it's really a two way street. Do you see that with your learners in STEM that they're able to use their communication skills to make learning happen? 

Dylan Kirklin: Absolutely. And communication is so important as well. I think it's really frustrating when you run into communication errors and generally when we run into problems or serious issues, it's communication. That's the thing that really breaks us down right and to be able to have if I could say the employees of the STEM Center are really good communicators and they work really well with the student employees that they have. We have a few different project coordinators that do different programs across campus like Wonder Wednesday and toddler Tuesday, ACT prep programs, the STEM nights tutoring at the high school and then the library and the coordinators there do a great job of communicating and working together. And that is just one example of the many people here at SUU that are really wonderful communicators that work together and share great ideas and kind of help facilitate and keep using that word. But it's just so important to me that there's facilitation of opportunity here. And SUU is great. 

Tony Pellegrini: You know, I really like you bring to the table these four points critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and how those are all easily transferable, not just from the day to day activities that they're doing. in STEM. But your your staff and others are going to be able to put those into practice throughout their careers to be able to improve their settings and situations. Talk to us for a moment or two about a technology that technology supports that you've had here. Like I mentioned a few minutes ago, school is a much different today than it is even two or three or four or five years ago. What are some of the technologies that you've mentioned the rocket simulation are the other technologies that you're putting into practice are engaging your learners to be able to develop their learning and understanding that deeper level. 

Dylan Kirklin: Technology is a little bit tricky for me. I enjoy technology and it's really fun. But what I've noticed in education, the past five years I was working there and even here at the STEM Center is sometimes you will invest in wonderful technology. And all of a sudden it is arbitrary a couple years later or it doesn't update correctly, or the iPads don't sync and no one has the code and who's going to update it. And technology can be really tricky but when you find those correct pieces, and you teach kids that it's continued innovation, it's a great tool and helping others like there is an incredible staying power of something like the calculator, right? Whereas the first computer had some great stuff but we've innovated a lot on it, whereas the calculator some people may use intense calculators, right. But the students that I taught fourth grade, they continue to use the basic calculator. And there's something about technology and finding the niche there that is things that will be useful for a long period of time. And that's what we're trying to find we find that creation, building and using a robot has had wonderful staying power. Because you can't get enough of the basics of robots, right? And coding and understanding those sorts of things. So we're heavily leaning to that in the STEM Center. We have a lot of cool, basic kits for robots and coding and that sort of thing. And trying to stay away from things that we might spend too much money on that become arbitrary. And I think a lot of people on campus feel that same way. Even computers, right? You could buy the right computer and then a couple years later, it's no longer the right computer doesn't support what you need. So looking for that and finding that is what we're about. 

Tony Pellegrini: Well, and I think that's a great lead into another question that I have for you regarding as you work with your learners. The instruction, the support, is it more teacher led from Dylan and your instructors? Or do you try to encourage student more student led instruction student discovery of what they'd like to know and what they'd like to pull some information from you on?

Dylan Kirklin: You know, sometimes we think we're great teachers and we're not you know, and that's, that's a dangerous thing. Sometimes we yeah, we like to talk and we like to, I like to get up there and share all this knowledge and things and I find that the students don't learn the best that way and when they get into it themselves, they discover things or learn things. And it may have been something that you just said, but it doesn't matter. Because even though you said it in front of them doesn't mean they're going to learn it right. And allowing students to work together innovate these all the seeds that we've talked about communicate together. It has staying power to allow them those opportunities and once again, facilitate those opportunities as our role as learners and teachers across campus. It doesn't matter who you work with facilitating those opportunities for students to learn in a better way and to allow them not to say that we can't give them great instruction or talk from time to time. But allowing students to do things is incredible, if I can one that was in the teaching program and going through the STEM endorsement here at SUU. It's a little bit different now but earlier there was professors that would come and help out we had John Taylor there, and Jason Kaiser, and as they helped us understand a little bit more about teaching students, they've set up wonderful demonstrations where they give us examples, and then allow us to do the work. So for example, John Taylor worked with us on collecting data, and he set out this wonderful grid with string on the grass and spread around I'm gonna say cotton balls it was and we had to go into each one of the squares randomly as they do in biology and count, right do a census of the material that was there and that opportunity to me I will never forget that. We could have easily just been told about how he goes out and works with that and the things that he does, but to facilitate and create that experience for us was so cool. And that is not an uncommon thing here at SUU where professors will go in, above and beyond to create something or a good opportunity for the students to go out and learn that way. And that just has such incredible staying power to me has a real impact on student learning.

Tony Pellegrini: That is really a wonderful place to for us to kind of end our conversation here to look to the future a little bit about teaching and learning. It's been from my perspective, it's been a great year for you here at SUU. You've done you've made some wonderful contributions. And talk to us for just a moment or two about your hopes or dreams next year 2, 3, 5 years down the road. What are some hopes or dreams that you see with STEM and with a future here at SUU? 

Dylan Kirklin: One thing that I'm really excited about this year is we have the Southern Utah STEM Awards. It's kind of a brainchild that I thought of and it's something that I wanted to award great teachers in K through 12. And as we talked about this idea of getting teachers awarded for what they do, many people will chime in and say hey, what about administrators? Can we award great STEM administrators? Can we work teams of teachers, could we award professors and instructors here at SUU and as I reached out to other schools we're partnering together with Utah tech, Dixie South Dixie Technical College and southwest Technical College. And we're all working together on this initiative. We received funding from the STEM action senator from up north, as well as local businesses like slurps up and people that have been willing to donate supplies like align precision. And to me, collaboration is the future and that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking to work together. With more universities, more colleges, more professors, more instructors, more community members, and building something that will have lasting effects on our community in Southern Utah. 

Tony Pellegrini: Those relationships are so critical. I'm really positive and upbeat on your vision. Any last words of wisdom for our education students and they have to eat pizza from Pellegrini up on the mountain this next semester? What words of wisdom would you have for our listeners? 

Dylan Kirklin: Just enjoy your learning. Enjoy the process. Sometimes it's difficult. Going to university is hard going to college is hard classes are difficult, but I see a great future and all that attend school here at SUU not just because of the great quality of education but because they have built together here something special. There's something special about the school and I'm glad that they chose to attend here. I'm glad that professors choose to stay and the staff everyone that works wonderful, so just enjoy it. 

Tony Pellegrini: Thank you so much. Tell us where we can find you. I want to I always like to leave an invitation to our faculty stop by Dylan's office stop by the center. And if you have additional questions or comments that you'd like to share with them, where can we find you? 

Dylan Kirklin: You can find us on the third floor the geosciences building, we have the STEM center there, it's open to the community. So please come check out supplies. If you're student here, come check out cool stuff to do for the weekend. If you're a parent, if you're a professor that wants to use a piece of equipment and come check it out. There are lots of cool stuff up there and I would love to have conversations with anyone who would like to collaborate or work with us. A few departments have reached out here on campus and we're interested in doing new things I want to do new things. I want to continue to grow the program So never be afraid to reach out. The least I could say is let's go eat lunch together. Right. So let's let's collaborate.

Tony Pellegrini: That sounds great Dylan, thank you so much for your time. We sure appreciate it listeners. We appreciate you tuning in and helping us to engage with teaching and learning here at Southern Utah University. Make it a great week.


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